Random Thoughts On A Saturday

Everybody loved the way Joakim Noah played with such enthusiasm and passion last year when he was a freshman, but admit it, how many of you thought you would see this much improvement from his freshman to his sophomore season? Everybody saw the potential last year but he was so raw and needed so much polish. He's still raw and he's still unpolished, but Joakim Noah is maybe a season away from becoming college basketball's best big man.

We saw glimpses of Noah as a real offensive threat last year. He showed a natural aggressiveness on the offensive end last year but his willingness to take the ball to the hole often got him in trouble. His size advantage bailed him out some of the time but it was obvious that he needed to learn when to take it to the rack and when to kick it out.

That's the area where he's shown such improvement this year and it's shown up consistently in the last eight games. Since a 26-point outburst against Kentucky in the O-Dome, Noah has scored 154 points and grabbed 56 rebounds, an average of 19 points and seven rebounds per game. His 37-point, 11-rebound game against Georgia Tuesday night was one of the most dominating games ever played by a big man in the O-Dome.

What had to please Coach Billy Donovan most of all was his ability to get to the foul line. Noah shot 22 free throws, knocking down 19. He tied the school record (held by Reggie Hannah) for most attempts in a game and broke Neal Walk's record of 18 made free throws in a game.

What Donovan is hoping for is that Noah will become Neal Walk-like in the ability to get to the foul line on a regular basis. Walk AVERAGED 10 free throw attempts per game in his junior and senior seasons at Florida, hitting 75.8% from the foul line as a junior and 72.3% as a senior. When your big man is that active on the inside, he's getting the other team in foul trouble, forcing them to go to their bench early and changing everything they do on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. Noah's just starting to get the hang of that.

It's one thing to get opponents in foul trouble, but it's another thing altogether to make them pay for their fouls. That means converting the fouls into points at the line. Noah is 50-64 from the foul line in the last eight games and he's improved to 71.5 percent from the line for the season.

During the last eight games, he has also hit 52-77 from the field (67.5 percent) and for the season he is 150-228. If the season ended today, his 65.8 percent shooting would rank in the top three all-time for a single season at UF.

It's not just on the offensive end that we've seen the improvement. He's blocked a team leading 59 shots and has 35 steals. That doesn't count all the shots he alters or gets a piece of.

* * *

FEAR FACTOR: The news that Jarvis Moss is 257 pounds of muscle should send shivers up and down the spines of every quarterback on the Florida schedule next season. That's a 40-pound transformation from the skeleton that we saw struggling on the field last spring. He's healthy now, getting stronger every day and ready to be the most dominating defensive end in the SEC next season.

Moss hasn't lost a step of speed and the strength gains have been incredible. This is the first time he's really had a chance to lift seriously since he came to Florida and all the weight he's added is 100 percent muscle. Florida's coaches are amazed at what they're seeing in the pre-spring drills. Expect Moss to top out at about 263-265 pounds by August.

Moss had 7.5 sacks last year. Because he was gaining strength once he was past his well-documented illness, he didn't get on the field until the third game of the season and it wasn't until the LSU game that he really started seeing significant action. He will be a consistent force on the field this season, particularly if Derrick Harvey continues to blossom. We're hearing that Harvey has really begun to mature in the mat drills.

If Ray McDonald can recover from his knee surgery in the fall, this could be the best Florida defensive line since that 1991 team which had future pros Kevin Carter, Brad Culpepper, Tony McCoy and Ellis Johnson.

* * *

MISSING MATT: Just how valuable is first baseman Matt LaPorta for Coach Pat McMahon's Florida baseball team? The Gators have played five games without the big guy in the lineup and they are 0-4. There's just no one in the Florida lineup that commands the respect of LaPorta so pitchers are pitching the entire Florida lineup very aggressively.

LaPorta is a presence to be reckoned with when he's healthy. Not only is he a threat to drive the ball out of the ball yard every time he's at the plate, but he creates plenty of hitting opportunities for the guys in front and behind him. When healthy, McMahon hits LaPorta third in the order which means the leadoff and number two in the order see plenty of fast balls. The last thing a pitcher wants to do is put a couple of men on base and then HAVE to pitch to the defending NCAA home run king. That benefits whoever is hitting behind LaPorta, too. Matt's going to get walked a lot this year and that means the four and five slot in the batting order are going to have plenty of RBI chances.

It's also quite evident in the field that LaPorta is missed. From a defensive standpoint, LaPorta is one of the best first basemen in the college game. He routinely turns bad throws into outs at first base and he has tremendous range to his right along with the quickness to defend the line. He rarely makes bad decisions where to go with the ball. LaPorta at first base gives all the other infielders the confidence to go get the ball and unload it to first because they know that if the throw's reachable, Matt will haul it in.

LaPorta's strained oblique muscle has him day to day. McMahon's not willing to rush him back into the lineup. He's got the grind of a 30-game SEC schedule ahead and that's where LaPorta's presence is most necessary.

* * *

DICKEY GROWING UP: We're starting to see a real evolution when it comes to Gavin Dickey, baseball player. Every game it becomes more and more clear that he is on track to become a gifted baseball player. Last year, Gavin was a great athlete playing baseball. This year, he's showing that he's not only a great athlete, but a baseball player whose game is catching up with his athletic ability.

Some recent examples of how he's grown up:

Last Saturday against Ohio State, he hits a home run to right field over the scoreboard. The first thing that was impressive is the way he went with the pitch. Last year he would have tried to pull that ball and he would have popped it up. This year he just went with the pitch and let his natural strength do the rest. Secondly, the ball was hit into a strong wind yet he had enough strength to simply muscle the ball over the fence.

Tuesday night against Florida State he got a tremendous jump on a sinking line drive with runners on second and third. Everyone in the stands was hoping that he could get to the ball quick enough to hold the Seminoles to a single run but Dickey closed fast, laid out and caught the ball inches above the ground for the third out. Last year he would have played it safe and the ball would have fallen for a single with at least one run scoring. This year, he's getting a great jump on everything hit to center field and he's covering a lot of ground.

Also Tuesday night, he hit into two double plays that killed rallies. Now, most would think that's a bad thing but you had to see how hard he hit the baseball. He hit one-hop rockets that if they are 18 inches left or right bring home runs. Dickey was distraught after the game. He blamed the loss on himself for not getting the runners home. McMahon said afterward that his job is to keep Gavin swinging the bat the way he's doing it right now, knowing that the percentages will catch up. At some point, those rockets find the gaps and become hits. That's the funny thing about baseball. Sooner or later the percentages even things out.

Friday night, Dickey had the patience to wait on an off-speed pitch and drive it into the gap for a double against Texas A&M, Florida's only extra base hit of the game. Last year, Gavin would have struck out on that pitch or done what so many Gators were doing against the Aggie pitcher, which is pop it straight up the chute.

Gavin Dickey is still a baseball work in progress, but the progress he's making is truly impressive. It's only a matter of time before he becomes a real force in the Florida lineup.

* * *

CHAMPIONSHIP POTENTIAL: Florida has a realistic chance to win four national championships this spring. It wouldn't be surprising in the least to see the Gators win it all in gymnastics, men's tennis, women's tennis and men's golf.

When Coach Rhonda Faehn's second-ranked gymnasts are 100 percent healthy, they are capable of beating any team in the country. Corey Hartung should win Freshman of the Year not only in the SEC but probably nationally. She's won an unheard of (for a freshman) five all-around titles and the Gators still have two home meets to go. If the Gators can get Samantha Lutz, Savannah Evans, Nicola Willis and Tiffany Murry past their aches and pains for the SEC, Regional and NCAA meets, the Gators have a lineup that can match up with any in the country.

Coach Andy Jackson's men's tennis team has the kind of depth that can win a national title. Freshman Ryan Sweeting gives Jackson the ability to flip-flop Greg Oulette at either one or two in the lineup depending on the matchup. There is veteran depth behind those two so Jackson can handle any injury situation. The Gators had a statement win Friday over Ole Miss. Ole Miss beat UF head to head in Seattle in an indoor tournament just a week earlier. The rest of the schedule will be played outdoors and that's where the Gators are at their best. The win over Ole Miss was dominating and tells the rest of the SEC that Florida is definitely for real.

Coach Roland Thornqvist is still experimenting with his women's tennis lineup a bit but he's got the talent to win it all. The loss up at North Carolina last week was pretty much a fluke. The second-ranked Gators roared back Friday to destroy an Ole Miss team, a better indicator of his team's ability. Diana Srebovic and Alexis Gordon at the top of the singles lineup give Thornqvist the most talented one-two punch in the nation.

Coach Buddy Alexander's golf team is ranked fifth in the country. Matt Every has been close to spectacular at the top of the Florida lineup and Billy Horschel has been very steady. If Alexander can get consistency from James Vargas and Brett Stegmaier, the Gators are as good as any team in the nation.

Fightin Gators Top Stories